Last week I made my way out to and through the South Dakota Badlands for the first time. Deciding to forgo my headset, I walked along the trail listening to the wind. As one would expect, wind sounds differently – harsher – blowing through a canyon than it does through prairie grass – richer. I did not expect to hear a difference as the wind blew through different types of prairie grass: the tall stems made a light whooshing sound. Grass with seeds still on the stalk elicited a delicate tinkling sound.
This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service. In celebration and solidarity, I’ve been reading books about park history and about the cultural shifts leading up to their creation. Our country, our identity changed in response to national parks.
On the upside, growing up in Montana meant Montana equalled national parks: Glacier and Yellowstone. I never knew life without Yellowstone or Glacier. On the downside it meant I was probably a little dismissive of out-of-staters who waxed rapturously about the magnificence of Glacier and Yellowstone.
‘Tween-aged Scyller staring levelly at out-of-stater, “Of course Glacier and Yellowstone are beautiful. This is Montana.” Clearly out-of-staters were halfwits if they needed such an obvious fact explained to them. I did so slowly, sighing witheringly. You can imagine my chagrin when I looked at the map and discovered that Wyoming claimed the bulk of Yellowstone.
But not all states are Montana, not all parks are Glacier or Yellowstone… and I wax rapturously.
If you watched the movie Armageddon with Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, and Ben Affleck, you saw the SD Badlands. With good reason, location scouts picked this area to film the surface of the asteroid scene. The park feels other-worldly: a paucity of vegetation grows, rock formations yield a stark landscape, and other than crickets chirping at twilight, very little sound moves… save the wind through tufts of prairie grass.
Where parks like Glacier and Yellowstone put me in my place spatially, the Badlands put me in my place temporally. The layered rock formations resulted from deposition and erosion. Depositional settings for sedimentary rocks require either wind or water to move sediment, accumulate it to sufficient thickness, and then time to lithify the sediment turning it into rock. Deposition outpaced erosion.
After all that time spent depositing sediment (with a brief interlude to lithify the sediments into rock), the wind and water came back through and eroded it. The harder rock layers above protected some of the softer sedimentary rocks below, but still erosion swept through leaving sentinels of time.
For this brief point in history we get to see the Badlands. SD Badlands formations were not always here, nor will they be for long: erosion outpaces deposition.